Science in the Service of Power

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In
our times science is certainly on top of everyone's list for credibility.
Science, as one might say, brings home the bacon – none of the technology
that makes life easier, safer, more comfortable, more productive,
more entertaining than it has ever been could flourish without the
enormous contribution of science. It is no accident that virtually
every area of human concern likes to label itself such – even transcendental
meditation dubs itself "a scientifically validated program,"
despite absurd claims to enabling people to levitate! And ads flood
television and the rest of the media promoting stuff with white-coated
folks summoned to lend their authoritative voices. Science is certainly
very reputable.

Now
when you hear word of impending disaster around the globe – be it
about the ozone layer, the rain forest, the green house effect,
or global warming – this sounds ominous, given how often it is supposed
to be backed by hard science. Politicians love this stuff, of course,
because they can stand up and ask for more and greater legal powers
with which to regiment the rest of us who are clueless, making it
seem impossible for life to go on without their constant expert-endorsed
meddling by way of government inspections and regulations.

And
who of us can confidently resist when the authority of the natural
sciences is offered as backing for such calls for greater state
power? Who but a few people, who spend the bulk of their time in
think tanks studying this stuff, can stand up and reject those calls
with confidence? If a scientist tells us that our home is about
to become a toxic trap, how confidently are we going to keep out
the meddlers, demand that they leave us in peace? We might be making
a big mistake, just as we might about the famous weapons of mass
destruction that experts insisted justified sending a bunch of Americans
to their death!

I
am sorry, but my skeptical temperament doesn't buy it. I am not
convinced, actually, that ecology is much of a science apart from
offering some explanations of how the globe's living systems behave.
But just as most of the natural sciences cannot give us any direction
as to how we should conduct ourselves, what we should aim for in
our lives, but only tell us about certain limits and possibilities,
so with ecology. This is especially so when it comes to the constant
finger-wagging environmentalists engage in with the supposed backing
of ecologists.

Consider
the often heard lament that we are awash with people, that there
is intolerable population explosion everywhere and that the resulting
urban development, often dubbed "sprawl," needs to be
contained. Is that really so? What demonstrates this? Most importantly,
what standards are being used here, whose progress and flourishing
is at stake so that such containment is imperative?

Whenever
I fly over the country – which is nearly 20 times a year – I take
a look at terra firma and it amazes me how much open, totally undeveloped
space exists below me. The American southwest, especially, just
seems to stretch out as far as the eye can see without even so much
as a village below. I think on such occasions about all this doom-saying
and shake my head in disbelief. The same happens when I fly in Europe,
Africa or New Zealand, places where I work once or twice every year
or so. There is so much wilderness in all these places that the
panic in the voices of environmentalists simply sounds less and
less a function of reality, more a function of power-seeking.

Now,
no doubt, people, with their capacity to do things well or badly
and their freedom to choose either, can mess things up a good deal
when it comes to managing their environment. That's just common
sense, which is why some version of environmental ethics is likely
to be sound. As far, however, as the more alarmist version of these
concerns go, I remain very worried that we are near dealing with
yet another bunch of people interested more in running everyone
else's life than in being genuinely helpful.

Fact
is, housing developments are the dwellings of a vital life form
in nature, human beings, no different from how nests are the dwelling
places of birds or anthills those of ants or dirt mounds those of
gofers or what have you. All living things transform parts of nature
to suit their living requirements, and the same goes for human beings.
To bellyache about this is rank misanthropy, not ethics. Sure, as
with all else, here, too, people can go astray, unlike other animals
that are governed by pretty reliable instincts to do the right thing
unfailingly. But that's not the same as being wrong for actually
building stuff – homes, roads, parking garages, office buildings
and the rest – which is natural as all get out for human beings
to do.

Perhaps
we ought to trust our common sense a bit more here than all those
experts who parade around in the media trying to scare us to death.

February
24, 2004

Tibor
Machan [send
him mail
] holds
the Freedom Communications Professorship of Free Enterprise and
Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman
University, CA. A Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
University, he is author of 20+ books, most recently, Putting
Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite
.

Tibor
Machan Archives


        
        

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